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Theresa May warns Conservative Party chairs that her deal can’t be renegotiated

The Prime Minister's remarks to local party bosses underline the chances that the UK may leave the EU without a deal.

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Theresa May has told Conservative Party association chairs that there is little chance that her deal will be renegotiated even if it were to be voted down by MPs, as the Prime Minister bids to impress upon her party the high stakes of voting through her deal.

In two paraphrased transcripts sent round by association chairs to their local parties, and seen by the New Statesman, association chairs grilled May on the proposals in a telephone conference organised by the party leadership. The particular areas of concern highlight that Conservative MPs may come back from their constituencies more, not less, likely to vote against the deal as the questions raised by association chairs largely concerned the future of fishing and farming, the role of the European Court and the potential for the UK-wide backstop to last forever.

That the Prime Minister has essentially dismissed the idea that the deal can be renegotiated to any great degree increases the chances that the cabinet’s remaining Brexiteers, who are all seeking to re-open aspects of the accord, may walk out, further complicating the legislative arithmetic and increasing the chances of a no-deal exit.

The range of questions largely eschewed the issue of May’s future, although several local party chairs confirmed that many of the questions put forward by their local members included straight-forward requests that the Prime Minister resign.

But even the policy questions highlighted the perhaps impossible task facing May in passing the deal. Constituency associations want more detail on the final relationship – an easy concession for the EU27 as the sections relating to the final relationship are not legally binding. But this is also the section that most concerns the opposition parties, concessions necessary to win opposition support would involve increasing the closeness of the links between the EU27 and the UK in the final relationship, while keeping even the existing Tory supporters on board would involve decreasing them. No deal may be inevitable.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman, the EI Political Commentator of the Year, and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Is it ok to feel sorry for Theresa May if you’re left-wing?

Well, sort of.

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One of the most awkward moments in my journalistic career – aside from my first ever interview with a politician resulting in an elderly Labour peer weeping beside me in a steak restaurant – happened last year.

It was October. I was sitting in the front row of the raised seating in an auditorium in Manchester. The beleaguered Prime Minister, who that year had lost her majority and her party’s respect in a general election she triggered, had taken the stage to reassert her authority. It was a big moment for her.

And then she was croaking. And spluttering. And coughing. She had to take a lozenge. She spilt water down herself. She tried to continue speaking, but the coughing fits kept coming. Political observers and sadists who watched the whole thing will remember the protester who interrupted her speech by handing her a “P45” – and the backdrop slogan’s letters falling off too.

I felt sorry for her. I couldn’t help it. Sitting comfortably in my row of cringing journalists, hoping I’d never in my life have to go through such embarrassment, I just felt a flood of sympathy. I was sweating. My muscles were clenching. I couldn’t shake the feeling for quite a while.

Lots of people seemed to feel the same way. Bungling public speaking is a classic anxiety dream. It’s relatable. And it’s horrible to watch someone suffer.

Of course, it was also a journalistic gift – a perfect symbol of her political fall-from-grace. Something I welcomed both as a reporter and a member of the British public who has seen (and, in the cases of people close to me, experienced) the damage successive Conservative governments have done to the country. I’d much rather see a change of government. I much prefer Labour’s policies.

But the point was, it could be two things. I could feel empathy in that cavernous hall, watching a solitary woman losing her dignity and what was left of her reputation, living a real-life nightmare. And I could also feel pleased that a Prime Minister who has concocted and perpetuated such ruinous policies – both in her time as Home Secretary and now – was coming unstuck.

This week, as Theresa May faces opposition from her cabinet, MPs and Parliament to her Brexit deal, people are again expressing sympathy.


But this is a controversial view. The actor Michaela Coel’s tweets – expressing empathy and admiration for the Prime Minister who has “been landed with D Cameron’s mess, like a dad abandoning his adolescent son. In a room largely full of self-seeking individualists” – have received a strong reaction online, a lot of it negative.


It is easy to see why people would balk at any apparently positive feelings towards May. Her Home Office policies and beyond have made life in Britain insufferable for many immigrants and asylum seekers. The hostile environment has created a country with record levels of hate crime against people from ethnic minorities. Her misjudged snap election and insistence on capitulating to extreme right-wingers in her party have largely created this Brexit mess. Her continuance of austerity (despite pretending it’s over) is dismantling the state, pushing people into poverty and ruining lives.

The majority of my career has been pointing out problems with Conservative government policies, reporting on their impact, and fact-checking, challenging and mocking ministers and MPs who carry them out and support them.

I understand where people come from when they say “don’t feel sorry for her – feel sorry for those on the receiving end of her policies”. Of course, anyone with a heart feels far sorrier for those who are not being served – and are actively being punished – by this government. And far angrier on their behalf.

But sympathy doesn’t run out. It’s not zero-sum. And it doesn’t feel genuine to say we can never feel sorry for May. It may not be left-wing. It may not be politically consistent. But it is kind of human. I felt an instinctive pang in that hall, and I get why people see the position she’s in now and feel a bit “poor thing”.

I also understand that there is a privilege in feeling sorry for people who do politically-damaging things. It isn’t usually political commentators who shoulder the burden of bad decisions, after all. But I would also like those Tories who parrot positive macro stats about, say, the record employment rate to listen to the stories of real people impacted by their politics – and feel sympathy with the individual. I find it odd when they don’t.

As my colleague Stephen Bush often points out, it’s not a good position for a Prime Minister to be evoking the nation’s sympathy anyway. No one wants a leader they feel sorry for. So it’s probably politically purer than you think to have a little sympathy sometimes.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

The government’s new ministers show it has lost the Brexiteers

Theresa May’s new junior ministers are a staunch Remainer and discredited Brexiteers. The perception that creates will matter.

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After a string of resignations and a promotion, Theresa May has shuffled the deckchairs of her junior ministerial ranks.

It’s a Stephen-for-Stephen replacement at the Department of Health and Social Care, where Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond replaces Stephen Barclay, the new Brexit Secretary, as minister of state.

Barclay will be joined at Dexeu by Kwasi Kwarteng, who has long been passed over for promotion to a proper government role and has hitherto had to square his intense personal ambition with the role of parliamentary private secretary to Philip Hammond. He replaces Suella Braverman, while John Penrose replaces Shailesh Vara at the Northern Ireland Office.

Kwarteng’s appointment in particular reflects the government’s acute weakness. His appointment, like that of Barclay, reflects the paucity of Brexiteers left in the government tent who are willing to take ownership of its Brexit policy. It is a sign of how far Downing Street’s stock among Leavers has fallen that Kwarteng succeeds a minister who was appointed directly from the chairmanship of the European Research Group.

While it is true that he and Barclay can both point to having voted Leave in 2016, many Brexiteers will consider their continued presence in government – especially now May has openly acknowledged its much-diminished role – an abdication of the right to credibility. The same goes for Penrose, a one-time Remainer who latterly became an active member of the ERG.

Just as the appointments of Kwarteng and Penrose will not soothe the nerves of Brexiteers, Hammond’s will actively agitate them. The Wimbledon MP had been one of the staunchest Remainers on the Tory backbenches and put his name to all the amendments to EU legislation that Leavers hated. He also championed the UK’s entry into the European Free Trade Area and had been talked up as one of the pro-EU Tories likely to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement.

Bringing him into government does mean he will no longer be able to cause trouble or organise colleagues on the backbenches – ditto Penrose, who had campaigned vigorously against the government’s proposed energy price cap. A government source points out that in a minority parliament, every vote counts. But as is the case with the appointment of Amber Rudd, who also nailed her colours to the Remain mast in her time outside government, it does mean the government is no longer bothering to try to look ecumenical. With trust between the Conservative Party’s constituent parts at an historic low, that perception will matter.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

A female Premier League boss is progress – but women are treated unequally in football

As well as historic discrimination, women’s football suffers from a lack of funding and media coverage. 

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This was the year football seemed to change: England actually did quite well in the World Cup, for a bit it even seemed as though it might be coming home, and then the Premier League appointed its first ever female chief executive.

As the one at the helm of an industry worth £3bn, Susanna Dinnage will become one of the few women at the top of British sport. But as she prepares to take over from Richard Scudamore, there are still questions to be answered as to why it has taken so long for women to enter higher positions in football. 

If we take a trip back to 1920, the first women's international game took place with an attendance of 25,000 people. A year later, however, women were banned by the FA from playing on Football League grounds, they were told "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged." 

Fast forward a few decades and women are no longer banned from playing professional football, but women’s football is still a talking point. During the 2018 World Cup, former editor of the Independent Simon Kelner, came under fire for saying in his column that women talking about World Cup games “is like getting a netball player to discuss major league basketball”. He also said “the world cup is competed for, exclusively, by men” (in fact, women have been competing in the Women's Fifa World Cup every four years since 1991). He went on to say that “TV bosses sought to have women on the panel for reason of appearance rather than to satisfy a latent demand to hear their opinions. And isn’t that tokenism in and of itself?”

Kelner wrote his article after the BBC and ITV hired female footballers Eniola Aluko and Alex Scott respectively to serve as pundits for the broadcasters’ coverage of the tournament. Stylist writer Moya Crockett called both women “staggeringly accomplished” footballers. As Kelners intervention shows, though, even these star hires were not without controversy.

In June, forrmer Chelsea and Tottenham defender Jason Cundy declared on Good Morning Britain that he preferred to “hear a male voice when watching football. For 90 minutes a high-pitched tone isn’t what I want to hear, and when there’s a lot of drama I think it needs to be done in a slightly lower voice.” To which Times columnist Camilla Long responded: “You certainly cannot continue the pretence that football commentating is a complicated or sophisticated occupation that demands the involvement of a penis.”

The sad truth is, data collected by the UEFA shows that it isn't only Cundy who has no time for women in football. In 2016-17, around 46 per cent of professional women’s football received media coverage on Facebook, 20 per cent on Youtube, 27 per cent on Twitter and Instagram, and 43 per cent on free-to-air television. 

Women’s football does have mass appeal, however. Around 750 million television viewers watched the Fifa Women's World Cup in 2011. However, these numbers aren't as high as the men's football, where with a total of 3.43 billion people tuning in to watch it on their televisions, according to research conducted by Fifa.com. 

When comparing salaries, in men’s footballs teams, most of the top players get on average £100,000 per week. Lionel Messi, the highest-paid footballer, receives $84m (£65m) a year.

The women’s salaries do not even come close. Brazilian striker Marta da Silva, of Orlando Pride appears to be the highest paid, with a salary of $315,000 (£245,000) per year. An article on the Manchester Evening News suggests that even with sponsors, a top level salary in the women’s game stands at around £70,000 a year – on a different level to the £300,000 a week Wayne Rooney earned in the Premier League. 

While there are 137,021 male professional footballers in the world, there are only 1,287 female professionals. In the UK, players in the FA Women’s Super League receive an average of £26,752 a year while the men in the Premier League are paid an average of £2.64m.

On top of everything else, another challenge for women's teams is the lack of funding. Even the teams at the top are extremely underfunded and rely on their male parent clubs for financial support. There are currently 11 teams in the Women's Super League and only nine have accounts registered with Companies House. These show that only Birmingham and Everton made small profits in the financial year ending May and June 2017. 

Some progress has been made, according to reasearch by Women in Sport. Women’s football now has its own distinct commercial partner programme, which is being sold separately to the men’s game. There are now four major commercial sponsors supporting women’s football in the UK, each with rights associated with a specific area of the game. BT Sport and Continental Tyres support the WSL, Vauxhall continues to support England Women and Nike is the exclusive kit sponsor.

Sally Horrox, managing partner at FA Consultants, says: “Women’s football offers a cost-effective entry to an increasingly valuable commercial property, which has a mass-market appeal linked strong with family values. It also guarantees media exposure (including TV) on a combination of terrestrial and other channels.

“There is a year-long narrative across every level of the sport, from grassroots participation, through top domestic leagues and on to elite international competition. Partners can also leverage affiliation with the FA and its established online following. And finally it has accessible and affordable player ambassadors working hard to communicate powerful messages.”

All this does is demonstrate that there is still a very long way to go to achieve gender equality in football. Dinnage is now one of nine women at the top of British sport, alongside sports worthies such as minister Mims Davies, UK sports chief executive Liz Nicholl and EFL interim chairwoman Debbie Jevans. But even with a woman in charge of the Premier League, there is a long way to go before the many other women in the sport are operating on a level playing field. 

 

Rebellion Day: does the gravity of climate change ever justify breaking the law?

A new group of environmental activists want to use civil disobedience to highlight the climate crisis.

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Eco-realism v. hippy extremism? When it comes to speaking-out about climate change, too much doomsaying can turn people off and make engagement seem futile. Yet too much optimism, and the status quo may not shift in time.

Getting this balance right is perhaps the greatest challenge facing a new group of environmental activists, known as Extinction Rebellion, who want to use civil disobedience to highlight the climate crisis.

Drawing upon findings from a recent UN report on climate change, the movement argues that the world only has “12 years left” to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown. They consequently want the UK to reach net-zero emissions by 2025.

“We say the social contract has been broken, so we not only have a right to rebel, we have a duty to rebel”, said Gail Bradbrook, an experienced activist and mother of two, at a press conference last week.

Rather than submit yet another petition, they believe that peaceful but arrestable protest is the best way to grab the attention of the press and the politicians.

This will culminate in a Hunger Games reminiscent “Rebellion Day”, on Saturday 17 November, in central London. Organisers say over 500 people have signed up to be arrested in a protest that they hope will “shut down” the city.

Their approach has already had some success: at least 27 protestors were arrested on Wednesday, after super-gluing themselves to the Downing Street gates, while human-blockades and “lock-ons” have also stopped traffic outside the Department for Energy and the Brazilian Embassy.

But to reach a critical mass of participants, the movement must persuade people who wouldn’t normally conceive of committing crime, to do just that. So can it convince new recruits that the climate crisis justifies breaking the law?

“Climate change will lead to irreparable harm to our planet's abiliity to sustain life, and cause great suffering, says Eduardo Gill-Pedro, a post-doctoral researcher in law at Lund University and a former rights and justice campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “So there is a good argument that we have a duty to do something, and that this duty outweighs our duty to obey the law.”

Breaking the law does not necessarily have to result in a wider disintegration of legal respect, he argues. “If we break the law saying 'we don't care what the law says, we want X, or we do not want Y' this might undermine respect for the rule of law. Yet if we break the law, acknowledging that it is the law and, in principle, should be respected, but we say 'despite this, other moral considerations impel us to break the law’, this will not necessarily undermine respect for the rule of law.”

Key to staying on the right side of law-breaking is also a commitment to non-violence and acknowledgement of any crimes committed, say the leaders of Extinction Rebellion. For example, they are training new activists to remain next to any graffiti they spray (with washable spray-paint), or even wash it off themselves. Participants in Saturday’s event also can choose whether to be involved in arrestable protest or not.

By opening out – and potentially popularising – a mode of protest previously only pursued by a small group of hardcore activists (many of whom have helped establish Extinction Rebellion), the organisers hope the environmental justice movement will gain new energy and reach.

Already, this week’s protests have drawn participants from a vast range of communities and professions, from farmers to faith groups. A town councillor and a retired civil servant protesting fracking in their local Lancashire community tell me they are also planning to make the trip.

Environmental NGOs are also supportive. “Friends of the Earth only takes part in peaceful, legal protest but we recognise we need a broad coalition of people, all clamouring loudly for action, to deal with this crisis before it’s too late,” says Liz Hutchins, campaigns director at Friends of the Earth.

And yet, there is a risk that in aiming to resolve all the world’s ills at once - political and environmental - the movement may not change any in time.

One stumbling block could be the extent of their ambition. Net-zero emissions by 2025 is a more extreme target than that set by the UN’s own report (which calls for a 45 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2030, then net-zero by 2050). It may instead be wiser to follow the findings of the Independent Committee on Climate Change, which is presently looking into how and when the UK could responsibly reach net-zero.

A second sticking point could be the movement’s focus on climate science's very worst predictions. “My personal view is that a collapse is coming,” said Gail Bradbrook at the press event. But while visions of a global collapse in food production and human population, in which only the richest survive, is not altogether inconceivable (just this week, the hiring of private fire-fighters by the Kardashian family, showed just how linked the ability to cope with climate change is to class), it also feels like an overly gloomy estimation of the human capacity for innovation, adaptation and co-operation.

And a third is the movement’s radical political edge. The personal view of Howard Rees, 38, a press coordinator with Extinction Rebellion, is that sufficient change is not possible under our existing system. Britain’s present form of democracy is a “sham”, he says, where the leaders are “puppets” of a capitalist elite, reliant on planetary exploitation. Consequently, the movement also aims to introduce a new representative People’s Assembly, which would dictate economic priorities to politicians.

As membership swells, however, the ambitions of the Extinction Rebellion may shift again, since its decision making process is based around internal discussion. And its members are not short on passion. So when it comes to encouraging government to take swift action on emissions they may yet prove, as the Hunger Games puts it, that "Hope is the only thing stronger than fear". 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Is Facebook’s leadership incompetent, or malicious?

It is increasingly difficult to say with a straight face that Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are fit to run a company with as much global power as Facebook.

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It should now be beyond all doubt: the top team of Facebook – the USA’s seventh-biggest company – are either woefully incompetent, or else they are actively duplicitous. Whichever it is, both the moral case and practical case for leaving Facebook’s senior management in place are weakening by the day.

The backdrop is bad enough for them. The social network lies at the centres of allegations of online misinformation – by state and other actors – in elections across the globe, perhaps most notably the 2016 US Presidential election.

Facebook has further been criticised for years for a sluggish and inadequate response to hate-speech, sustained abuse, and fostering far-right anti-Semitic and racist groups.

Its WhatApp platform has been connected to violent mobs fuelled by misinformation in India, which have in turn been connected to lynchings. And just last month, WhatsApp was connected to sustained efforts to spreads viral fake news in Brazil’s elections, which saw the sexist, racist homophobe Jair Bolsonaro take the country’s presidency.

Despite a global PR tour and a string of public apologies, Facebook appears to have done little in practice to actually grasp the problem: just last week it had to withdraw a new system in the UK which would require political advertisers to register themselves, and show their adverts in a public archive.

The reason it had to be pulled and rethought? It had not occurred to the engineering team that people might just make something up in that field – and so Facebook’s mechanism to tackle misinformation got immediately hijacked with fake news. That would be mortifying incompetence even if this wasn’t the company’s ostensible top priority.

This would be enough of a case for incompetence on its own, but the exec team doesn’t seem to have managed much to tackle the company’s commercial malaise either.

It is stagnating in its most lucrative markets and failing to secure the new generation of internet users on anything like the scale it used to – and it’s only just starting to see the consequences of its efforts to try to expand into countries with less functional political and information systems.

That’s the argument that Facebook’s top team aren’t up to the problems they’re facing – though you could argue given the scale of Facebook and the scale of those problems, perhaps no-one could be.

But that’s before we get towards the arguments for malice.

Earlier this week, the New York Times revealed that Facebook had hired an outside PR firm, which worked to interest right-wing media outlets in stories connecting a group critical of the company to George Soros.

No company in the world is in a better position than Facebook to know what a toxic dog-whistle this is: Soros has been the bogeyman of far-right and nationalist movements across the world, and has become a transparent means for people trying to keep a veneer of respectability to spread anti-Semitism.

Facebook has surely hosted more of those efforts than any other company in the world. And now, through an outside PR company, we know it was responsible for spreading them itself, too.

The company’s response is laughably disingenuous, and assumes the media and public are stupid. Senior execs have taken the line of shocked innocence, saying they had no idea their PR company was engaged in activities like this, dropping the company, and saying it has no wish to do “Washington” style PR.

This is abject and obvious nonsense: there is surely no way Facebook did not know who they were hiring. Definers Public Affairs, as the Daily Beast reported, have been responsible for spreading information smearing climate change activists and legislators, and was hired by former EPA chair Scott Pruitt to dig up dirt on his opponents: this is a dirty tricks firm, not a PR-as-usual one.

Facebook are asking us to believe they are a sophisticated multi-billion-pound company run by ingenues who don’t even do the most basic due diligence on the people they hire to run their most sensitive PR campaigns.

That’s implausible enough just on its own, but Facebook have hired similar outfits in the past – using a different firm in 2011 to encourage news outlets to run negative stories on its rival, Google. Are we supposed to believe Facebook knew all about PR dark arts then, but forgot in the meantime?

Facebook’s top management is treating their shareholders, their regulators, their governments, their customers and the wider public with contempt. They should not be surprised if that feeling rapidly becomes mutual.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk

A UN inspector came to investigate poverty in Britain – here’s what he found

Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, was scathing about the government’s cuts and welfare changes.

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What does a 12-day trip around the UK looking into austerity, Universal Credit, child poverty and the impact of Brexit show you? That the “fabric of British society” is falling apart, and ministers are “in a state of denial”, according to Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

The human rights expert announced his findings at a press conference in London, after travelling all over the country – from assessing rural poverty in Bristol to visiting foodbanks in Newcastle, from speaking to schoolchildren in Scotland, discovering how devolution has to mitigate government policy in Wales, and hearing about hardship in Clacton, Belfast and Newham.

Alston took a dim view of what he saw, accusing the British government of breaking its human rights obligations, and finding austerity has inflicted “great misery” on UK citizens.

Here are the most scathing parts of his investigation:

The UK is breaking human rights obligations

“As a proponent of human rights, and as a representative of the UN human rights system, I think there is no alternative but to include that the obligations in a range of conventions - whether it’s the Convention on the Rights of the Child, whether it’s the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - there are quite a number of provisions which I think are not at all satisfied by existing British policies.”

Government is ignoring how people will “suffer” from Brexit

“Almost no matter what outcome Brexit achieves, other than the utopian one which is most unlikely to happen, is going to leave Britain worse off economically. There’s going to be a fall in GDP, there’s going to be a fall in tax revenues... The problem is that there’s been almost no discussion about what impact that’s going to have on low-income groups. They will, if present policies are maintained, bear the brunt of the economic fall-out from Brexit… those in the lower income levels are really going to suffer. I think it’s imperative that that issue be brought much higher up on the agenda; it’s every bit as important as getting a lot of things right in terms of the interests of the City, in terms of the free flow of trade and so on. The impact on the British people is not being examined in the way that it should be.”

Ex-Work & Pensions Secretary Esther McVey shrugged off Universal Credit domestic abuse risks

“The payment to a single household has drawn a lot of attention. It’s said, and I completely accept it, that the impact on many women is extremely problematic. That they are not able to control the family income, that the male in the household dominates, and that it even puts them at greater risk of domestic violence.

“The response that I got from the former Secretary of Work and Pensions was, first of all, ‘93 per cent of people in the United Kingdom have joint bank accounts anyway, so what’s the problem?’ Well, it would be interesting to see what the figures are for women living in poverty, whether they have joint bank accounts. Most of them don’t have a joint bank account because they’re solo, even if they’re living with someone.

“She also then went on to say, ‘well, you know if they’re having problems, they should get counselling and if things get really bad they should leave’. This shows a really deep and sensitive understanding of the situation in which such women find themselves. And it’s not an option, it’s not the way to approach these things, and the government should change that.”

Universal Credit is “problematic”, “harsh”, “unnecessary” and “gratuitous”

“There are a number of aspects to it which are particularly problematic and harsh, and more interestingly, unnecessary and almost gratuitous, and could therefore be changed fairly quickly.”

He mentioned the five-12 week waiting periods, the payment to a single household, the digital-by-default system, and sanctions.

Cuts and benefit changes are “ideological”

“The implication is that ‘there was no choice, there was a financial crisis, there was a need to make immense budget savings, and benefits was one of the key areas where that could be done.

“The truth is that first of all, there haven’t been a great many savings from what I can see. A lot of it has involved the transfer over from one set of items to another. A lot of it has been pushed off to the community, to families, to emergency rooms, and to even governmental emergency services rather than in the benefits system itself.

“I don’t see that the motivation has been to create a more compassionate and more caring benefits system, and one that actually produces better life outcomes for people. Instead, the motivation is, very clearly, I believe, an ideological one.”

The DWP is misleading us on Universal Credit

“The digital by default system I believe is not working anywhere near as smoothly as the government says. The figures in terms of the number of people who begin the claims process and then abandon it are remarkably high, close to a third of people give up. Now, I suspect that DWP’s quite happy about that in a way, ‘good, less benefits to be paid’, but again, a huge level of frustration and not reflected in the statistics.

“I think they’ve overstated the number of people who are comfortable doing all this digitally, and I think the system is - despite their suggestions that there are all sorts of other alternatives - I think it is overwhelmingly pressing people to do everything online.”

…and on benefit sanctions, which are “counter-productive”

“All of the evidence that I’ve seen, notwithstanding various assertions made by DWP, indicate that sanctions are usually counter-productive, that they create fear and loathing among claimants, that they impose immense hardships on people… That sort of punitive approach to benefits is utterly inconsistent with the essential underpinnings not just of what I would see as human rights, but of the whole British sense of community, and the values of justice and fairness.”

“I think the sanctions policy has been put to me that it's cruel and inhuman. It's very hard to disagree with that sort of assessment.”

In fact, government ministers are “in a state of denial” about poverty

“There is close to unanimity in terms of the observations by think tanks, a lot of media commentators, independent authorities like the National Audit Office, by a whole range of parliamentary committees and others, that poverty is really a major challenge in the United Kingdom. And that not nearly enough is being done to address the challenges.

“On the other side, what I found in my discussions with ministers, is basically a state of denial. The ministers with whom I met have told me that things are going well, that they don’t see any big problems, and they are happy with the way in which their policies are playing out. But it’s of course not the story that I heard in my travels through Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and in quite a few cities in England.”

“…When I meet the economic assistant to the Treasury, ‘no, it’s fine, these councils have got a lot of money, they can take these cuts, they’re doing well’. It’s a totally mechanical, economic analysis, that ignores the damage that I think is being done to the fabric of British society.”

Having spoken to 40 MPs across parties, Alston thinks “ministers must be getting that message” about poverty “but they’re not heeding it”.

The state “does not have your back any longer”

“The [social security] system epitomised by Universal Credit, but not at all limited to that, is in fact driven by the desire to get across a simple set of messages: ‘the state does not have your back any longer’, ‘you are on your own’, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘there’s no such thing as society’, ‘the government’s place is not to be assisting people who think they can’t make it on their own’. And so, what goes along with that, is that we should make the system as unwelcoming as possible, that people who need benefits should  be reminded constantly that they are lucky to get anything, that nothing will be made easy.”

Freezing benefits is hypocritical

“There is an extraordinary disconnect between the triple lock which protects pensioners and the freeze which freezes all in-work beneficiaries. The argument that pensioners couldn’t possibly have to put up with that - quite right! Whereas people in work, well, let them suffer, let them lose every year, let them get less. I think that’s deeply problematic.”

The two-child benefit limit is like China’s one-child policy

“The two-child policy has – I’m just not sure how to put this, because I don't want to go in the wrong direction, but China's one-child policy? Yes, it was forced, it was physical. But this is in the same ball-park. That poor people mustn't have more than two children, and if they do, the rest of the children are going to suffer. It’s great. It’s a real perfect way to punish families.”

British society is becoming “increasingly hostile” as its fabric is eroding

“The damage that I think is being done to the fabric of British society, to the sense of community which has been built in part around the sports centres, the recreation spaces, the public lands being sold off, the libraries being closed down, the youth centres being downsized, and soon there will be nowhere for people in the lower income groups to go. It’s perfect because those on higher income groups will have more money, because their tax has been cut, but they will find themselves living in an increasingly hostile and unwelcoming society, because the community roots are being systematically broken.”

***

Arguments about austerity being a choice, rather than a necessity, are well-worn on the left. That a UN envoy, an independent observer, echoes this view adds gravitas but also adds another, authoritative voice to the chorus who have been accusing successive Conservative governments of dismantling the state for ideological purposes.

Alston’s indictment of British society also stood out. When an expert who assesses poverty in different countries around the world – recently including Ghana and Mauritania – paints such a gloomy future of Britain’s public realm, it should alarm the government.

When I pushed him on this point, Alston told me he sees this country “heading towards an alienated society”, in which the “pretty dramatic differences” between rich and poor will become unsustainable. Join this up with his picture of an “increasingly hostile and unwelcoming society”, and you feel he’s only just stopping short of describing Britain’s economic division in terms of a civil war.

“I think that is going to create an alienated society, and one which won’t look like what Britain thinks it wants to look like – and I believe it should look like.”

This picture of a disappearing public realm ties in with the New Statesman’s reported series, “Crumbling Britain”, which investigates the impact of cuts across the country.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

In Stephen Barclay, Brexiteers finally get their cabinet minister for no deal

The appointment of the little-known health minister reflects the scale of opposition to May’s Brexit plans – and Downing Street’s control of negotiations. 

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Third time lucky? Theresa May has appointed Stephen Barclay, a junior health minister, to succeed Dominic Raab as Brexit Secretary.

The North East Cambridgeshire MP is a former Treasury minister and, as per Dexeu’s occupational requirements, is a Brexiteer. That’s about it. Unlike his two predecessors, he is neither a rising star of the government payroll (like Dominic Raab) nor a commander of any great personal loyalty among his fellow Eurosceptics (like David Davis).

That much, of course, is obvious – we know that Michael Gove was Theresa May’s first choice for the role. That Barclay was the next best Leaver willing to take the job reflects the breadth and depth of opposition to the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal among the surviving members of her cabinet and Conservative MPs. As well-liked as he is by many colleagues, Barclay's appointment will not raise morale. 

Frankly, the Prime Minister has done well to fill the job with a Brexiteer or indeed fill it at all – some on Whitehall believed that Dexeu would be wound down and folded into the ministerial brief of David Lidington, the de facto deputy prime minister and Europhile, or given to a May loyalist who voted Remain in 2016, such as James Brokenshire. An appointment in either vein would have been taken as a provocation by many Tory backbenchers.

Less important than the fact that May has managed to fill the job, however, is the decision Downing Street has taken to heavily circumscribe its remit – or at least stop indulging the fiction that its holder will have any responsibility for negotiations with the EU. Barclay has been tasked with ensuring “domestic preparedness” ahead of Brexit, with the PM and the Cabinet Office’s Europe Unit, led by Olly Robbins, responsible for what Davis and Raab wrongly assumed they were responsible for. The less than A-List identity of their successor has finally given Downing Street cover to admit that Dexeu was never quite what the Brexiteers thought it was.

Despite this, there is a certain irony about the remit Barclay has been given. Leavers within and without government spent much of 2016 and 2017 complaining that the government had done insufficient planning for leaving the EU without a deal. Their proposed remedy was a cabinet minister for no-deal preparations. In Barclay, they have finally got one – but not in the circumstances or timeframe that anybody would have desired.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

Amber Rudd’s appointment as Work and Pensions Secretary is a big gamble for Theresa May

The Hastings and Rye MP has a lot to prove in her new job and a huge number of problems inherited from her predecessor. 

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Amber Rudd has returned to the cabinet as Work and Pensions Secretary, less than six months after her resignation as Home Secretary.

Politically, it is a sign that Theresa May is no longer particularly worried about keeping Leave ultras on side: for the first time, she has reshuffled her cabinet in a way that does not maintain thecabinet’s Remain/Leave balance. (Esther McVey was a Leaver, Amber Rudd is not just a Remainer but one of the biggest Conservative presences on the Remain campaign.)

It also means the restoration of a minister that May never wanted to lose in the first place: the Prime Minister tried very hard to keep hold of Rudd, and it was only because the Hastings and Rye MP herself insisted that she had to step down having inadvertently misled MPs about whether or not the Home Office had targets for removals that Rudd ever left the Cabinet at all. 

This is very much a reshuffle in the May mould: given a choice, her preference is always to recruit allies rather than to broaden out the tent.

But there’s another element at play here which is that the DWP, which had long been regarded as one of Whitehall’s most efficient government departments became a byword for dysfunction and delay under Iain Duncan Smith and a slew of ministers since – not Stephen Crabb, not David Gauke and not McVey – have been unable to turn it around, although in the case of Crabb and Gauke that was as much because their time at the department was cut short unexpectedly.

The Universal Credit roll-out is six years behind schedule, and while there is division about why the flagship reform is in a mess – some people think it needs more money, some people think that no amount of money can save the policy in its current form – everyone agrees that it is a mess that is causing serious hardship for people claiming it, with the potential to cause significant political harm to the Conservatives.

Now the department has a Secretary of State who had to resign because, at a minimum, she was not fully aware of what her last department was doing to reduce immigration, the Home Office's main political priority under the Conservatives.

Rudd’s time on the backbenches was four months less than the ten months between Peter Mandelson's resignation as trade and industry secretary and his return to the cabinet, and just one month more than that between David Blunkett's resignation as home secretary and his appointment as welfare secretary, and neither Mandelson or Blunkett's resignations raised questions over their ministerial competence. (Mandelson resigned over an undeclared loan to buy his house, Blunkett over allegations he had fast-tracked his nanny's visa.) 

It’s both a huge opportunity for Rudd – turn around the DWP and the Windrush scandal and its fallout will be seen as an inevitable result of being May’s successor at the Home Office, plus reap the ensuing political rewards – and a big risk for May two times over. If Rudd succeeds at the DWP, it will further suggest that May’s tenure at the Home Office was actually a disaster that she merely did a good job of hiding while she was in charge. If Rudd fails, at least some of the ignominy will be heaped on May.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman, the EI Political Commentator of the Year, and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

How an unforced error lost Theresa May Labour votes on Brexit

In forcing MPs to vote for the divorce treaty and future relationship together, the Prime Minister has put a very low ceiling on the number of opposition rebels. 

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There are too many Conservative rebels for Theresa May to pass her Brexit deal, and far too few Labour ones. For the Prime Minister, that basic truth looks unassailable. But did it need to be?

There are increasing murmurs on the Labour benches that, while supporting the proposed post-Brexit relationship the PM has agreed with the EU is out of the question, the Withdrawal Agreement itself – the divorce treaty – could be just about swallowable.

When it comes to the meaningful vote on the deal, however, both will be voted on at once.

In a forthcoming interview with the New Statesman, Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, says that May has made a major strategic mistake in putting the Withdrawal Agreement before the house alongside a non-binding political declaration on the future trade relationship with the EU.

“The vote that is going to be put to parliament is on the Withdrawal Agreement and a document that goes alongside that, which has no binding force, on the future relationship with the EU – which we haven’t really even begun to negotiate yet.

“The problem with what May is doing is that she is putting both the Withdrawal Agreement, which she could find a majority for in the House of Commons, to us alongside a statement on the future relationship, which it’s very unlikely that she’ll find a majority for in the House of Commons.

“To give you an example: if she were able to bring forward a Withdrawal Agreement that had a UK-wide customs union with the EU that enabled businesses like Heinz in my constituency to continue to trade with the EU, along with all of the other protocols that were already in the draft agreement, then I would be minded to vote for it in order to avoid the prospect of no deal.

“But the problem that she’s created for herself and for the country, is that by putting that to parliament with this statement on the future relationship, by refusing to give parliament any guarantees about that future relationship will look like, by failing to stand up to that hard group of Tory Brexiteers about a permanent UK-wide customs agreement, she’s making it virtually impossible for MPs like me to support it, for Labour as a whole to support it, and for the deal to get through.

“It’s really serious, because no-deal would be a disaster for my constituents and for the country as a whole, but this is why I think parliament needs to do much more than we’ve done so far and take the lead on pushing her to stand up to that group of Tory Brexiteers, giving some kind of shape and definition to that future relationship document that would be acceptable to most parliamentarians on each side of the divide.”

Similarly, Nandy’s Labour colleague Hilary Benn, the Brexit select committee chair, said yesterday that he did not object to the terms of the divorce – rather the vague nature of the political declaration that accompanied it. Labour’s six tests are also concerned with the future relationship and not the terms of withdrawal.

As far as preventing a no-deal scenario goes, agreement with Brussels on the latter is all that matters. So could May yet woo Labour rebels by tabling two separate votes on the Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration respectively?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. The EU (Withdrawal) Act, passed in June, states that both must be voted on at once. This is a problem of the government’s own making – as far as Brussels and the terms of the treaties are concerned, how parliament needed to vote, if at all, was solely a matter of domestic policy for the UK.

Linking both was a means of avoiding the accusation of a blind Brexit – or to draw the sting out of Brexiteer claims that Brussels would pocket the £39bn divorce bill and stiff the UK in trade negotiations. An unforeseen consequence is that it has shut off one of the few roads that Labour rebels just might have thought it safe to travel down.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

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